May 11, 2006

Core Curriculum? More like Ignore Curriculum...

At the risk of being misunderstood, my title means this and only this:

I have long thought that most of the proponents of a core curriculum have no idea what such a measure would entail—pedagogically, ideologically, or socially. Ignorance, and not knowledge, is behind the effort to reinstall core curricula in the university.

Those who support a core curriculum act like they are doing so because they worry about a general lack of "worthwhile" education, or education about Life's Big Problems, or they make the argument that a core curriculum would provide a campus with a common base from which better and more fruitful discussions could develop.

However, I have long suspected that there are only three real impulses behind most support of core curricula:

1) a perceived need to control a liberal professoriat. If you, as an alum or a public "intellectual" are able to set the table off which all profs have to feed their students, then you get a huge say in how the food gets served.

2) a sincere desire to keep the "critiques from the margins"—ethnic and gender studies foremost, but also postcolonial studies and some others—marginalized and discredited as, at best, intellectual "affirmative action," at worst, utterly useless and wastes of university resources


3) a covert wish to quash the connection between knowledge and outward-directed action—namely, student activism and political engagement.

I got proof of all three of these impulses today while reading PowerLine's write-up of their "interview" with President Wright. The topic they lead off with (in the post, at least) is core curriculum.
I asked him about the lack of a core curriculum in Western civilization -- even for those students who would pursue such a program voluntarily...
This doesn't seem very suspect, but let's look at it as two separate suggestions—a) that there be a core curriculum or b) that there be a course or courses offered to students who wish to ground themselves formally in "Western Civilization." It may seem like these differ only in degree, but ideologically, they are antitheses.

The purpose of a core curriculum is that everyone does it. That is its whole pedagogical purpose. To offer it as an elective course of study defeats the whole purpose. Making it elective closes off the possibilities that are normally projected as the goals of having a core curriculum—giving students a common discursive currency, forming a more cohesive community, etc. Instead, what does it offer? (A small measure of) Power—power to change the curriculum and to get the administration to meet your demands and force (some) professors to dance to your tune.

Secondly, just having an "elective core curriculum" (again, I assert this to be an oxymoron) around is an attempt to discredit the critiques and presence of "marginalized" studies—the message is, 'well, this is the real deal, but we realize you might like to take those AAAS courses because you're black and that interests you more than Milton.' The only point to having a "coherent Western Tradition" present on campus to serve as a contrast to all those other, far-flung, "marginal" studies. "Well," it says, "we don't want to push Plotinus on you, but it's here, and you're not exactly serious if you're not taking it." The fact is, we can't live with or under a coherent Western Tradition that can or could stand entirely alone and apart from a global and multicultural, multi-sourced context. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

Thirdly, a core curriculum is intended to erase the perception of difference, or at least make difference less of a topic for discussion and, moreover, less of an impetus for action. Action arises from difference; a core curriculum seeks to pave over difference beneath a stack of books and ideas held "in common." A core curriculum will only ever create (inquisitive, perhaps, but) quietistic learners. Why is the Bible a stable and unchanging set of books? To foreclose (most of) the possibilities for individual action or thought. However, this goal works about as well whether it is a communal learning framework or an individual's study—so it really doesn't matter if your college has a mandatory core curriculum or an elective one. A core curricular education makes you think of difference as incidental rather than as basic, and of yourself as fundamentally similar or the same as most other people. Why should you act outwardly to change things if difference—yours, or in general—is relatively insignificant? You shouldn't—you wouldn't. And that's why they want one of these bastardized forms of education around.

Sorry for the length. If you are interested in this topic, read my other posts on Core Curriculum (it's a bit of a bete noir for me), here are others:
Critique of Review's Core Curriculum issue, Part Two, Part Three
A Harvard student's plea for a core curriculum


  1. Anonymous1:25 PM

    This argument is specious on a number of counts, but I will say just this: to be able to speak intelligently from the "margin" one must first know the center. To learn nothing about the Western intellectual tradition upon which the liberal arts and sciences are founded will leave those at the "margin" unable to attract the support or understanding of the center. Post-colonial studies, etc. represent a beneficial expansion in the knowledge base of a once close-minded intellectual tradition, but to fully understand the globalizing, capitalist world we live in, it is necessary to study this tradition either through a core curriculum or some other option.

  2. First of all, I think your comment is important. But i think you have both misread me and don't really understand the key concepts behind critiques from the margins.

    I don't know where you get this implicit idea that I want to junk the study of the "Western intellectual tradition." It's exactly what I study. This isn't an either/or—just because I believe that no one should have to read Tacitus doesn't mean that I believe that no one should. Also, you seem to assume that speaking from the margin naturally entails a total lack of knowledge of the center. This is fairly ridiculous. Being alive in this day and age prevents even the possibility of being as ignorant of Western tradition as you suggest.

    Secondarily, I hold that studying the Western tradition from a viewpoint at the margin actually offers a better vantage point than being at the "center."

    Postcolonial studies, for example, is a lot more than criticism of imperialism. If that were all it is, it wouldn't be worth very much at all— you can get that critique from Thucydides, or from current events, for that matter. The insight of postcolonial studies that matters to the study of Western civ is that Western culture cannot be studied on its own because it does not exist on its own, and its self-image was not formed on its own. It was formed in opposition to an other—women, the "Orient," etc. and it continues to reform itself in the selfsame way. Studying the interaction with an other circumvents a laborious trip through memory lane and offers riches that you simply can't find in the Canon.

    However, maybe you have more to say--i'd really like you to expand on your last comment.

  3. Anonymous1:02 PM

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